It is no secret that the fortunes of the Labor Party have been flagging in recent years.
Formerly the longtime ruling party, its star has waned with the ascent of the Israeli Right as well as a host of competitors for the center ground of Israeli politics.
Just six years ago Labor, in an alliance with Tzipi Livni, managed to obtain 24 seats in the 2015 elections, but in the last election, in March 2020, it could muster just three MKs, and that only by dint of an alliance with Meretz.
At the same time, the cause of progressive Jews in Israel has also stalled in respect to their desire for greater recognition and status in the Jewish state.
A grand plan for a state-recognized progressive Jewish prayer area at the Western Wall was canceled by the last stable government, which, together with a fierce fight over conversion, caused an unprecedented crisis between the government and the non-Orthodox denominations in Israel and the US.
But earlier this week, a political development occurred that might presage a fillip for both Labor and progressive Jews.
In the Labor primaries on Monday, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the director of the Reform movement in Israel, obtained the fourth spot on the party’s electoral list for the upcoming elections.
And new Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli’s victory in the leadership primary has given Labor a boost in the polls, with the party predicted in recent surveys to gain between five and eight seats.
Kariv may be bumped down the final Labor list if Michaeli unites with another party or reserves a slot on the list for other politicians, but Kariv will remain in an obtainable position to enter the Knesset.
Should he be elected, he would become the first Reform rabbi ever to be elected to Knesset.
Kariv has served as director of the Reform movement in Israel for some 12 years, and has been intimately involved in many of the political battles the denomination in Israel has conducted.
But the rabbi insisted it is not his position as the director of the Reform movement in Israel which is significant should he be elected to the Knesset but the very fact that he is a Reform rabbi.
“I’m an ordained Israeli Reform rabbi – that’s what I’m known as,” he said.
“The significance, were I to be elected, is that someone who is deeply involved in the spiritual and communal leadership of the Reform movement will be in the Knesset, and this says something very strong and profound about us becoming part of the Israeli mainstream.”
Moreover, Kariv said that during the Labor primaries he did not try to brush over his role within the Reform movement but talked openly and proudly about being a Reform rabbi and received his fourth-place position on that basis.
“It says something very strong and profound about us becoming part of the Israeli mainstream. The fact that I am in the fourth slot says something about the fact that Reform Judaism is not a marginal player or only identified with Diaspora Jewry,” he insisted.
Asked whether, despite his success, the Labor Party membership which voted in the primary is representative of Israeli society more broadly, Kariv argued that Labor’s voter bases is diverse, and includes the kind of traditional Israelis living in the country’s periphery who are more skeptical of the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations.
“The Labor Party membership is extremely diverse, and I do think it is a microcosm of large circles of Israeli society,” he said.
The rabbi also insisted that despite the religiously traditional identity of many Israeli Jews who are not observant of Jewish law, such traditional Israelis want to “embrace a more moderate version of Judaism.”
“That does not mean they will become Reform,” said Kariv quickly. But he asserts that there is a desire to see “an alternative message” other than the one that comes from the religious establishment.
“It’s not about Reform versus Orthodox, but a desire to have an alternative voice which represents a more moderate Jewish voice in the Knesset, a Jewish voice against racism, one which emphasizes the values of social justice and not only the more practical religious aspects of Judaism.
“A Jewish voice which speaks about the importance of peace, which overrides the importance of holding all parts of the Land of Israel,” he said, asserting that, today, the Reform movement is “part of a coalition which is an alternative to the ultra-Orthodox and extreme right, ultranationalist Jewish voice.”
SO WHAT might Kariv’s election to the Knesset, should it happen, mean for the progressive Jewish communities in the country?
Kariv said that there is a “legislative monopoly of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox establishment,” in reference to the inability of liberal parties to pass legislation providing equal status to the non-Orthodox movements, recognition of progressive Jewish marriage and divorce, and other similar issues.
This is something Kariv would wish to address, although he acknowledged that doing so will not happen quickly.
But beyond legislation, the rabbi said Israeli governments and authorities have “treated the entire family of pluralist, liberal, progressive Jewish movements and their communities and organizations in a clearly unequal way,” and that the non-Orthodox have been “heavily discriminated against” in the allocation of public resources.
“When you have a representative in Knesset and, hopefully, in the coalition and, hopefully, in the government, then you can start to balance the way the government is treating different branches of Israeli Judaism,” he said.
Moving more into the political realm, Kariv said the Labor Party is now dedicated to removing the Likud and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power.
He insisted that the center-left bloc was very close to doing so in the last election but was thwarted by “the bad behavior” of the Blue and White Party and “the previous leadership of the Labor Party.”
Following the March 2020 elections, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz split his party to enter the national-unity government with the Likud, and was followed by Labor leader Amir Peretz and his No. 2, Itzik Shmuli, despite explicitly promising not to do so.
“Our desire is to have a center-left government,” said Kariv, and described the current administration as having failed on the COVID-19 crisis and its economic repercussions, as well as having “led Israeli society to a dangerous place” regarding intercommunal relations in the country.
Kariv acknowledged, however, that, according to the current polls, there is slim chance a center-left government can be formed, and that removing the Likud and Netanyahu from power would require a coalition comprised of strongly right-wing parties such as Naftali Bennett’s Yamina and Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope, together with the left-wing Labor party and likely Meretz, too, which is even further to the Left.
Asked whether he and the Labor Party can sit with such right-wing parties, Kariv said that his party would certainly consider doing so.
“If we need to create political alliances, then, like always in politics, we will need to do what it takes in order to replace the prime minister and government,” he said.
But he insisted there are “redlines” which cannot be breached regardless of “how important replacing Netanyahu” is, saying that some of the most highly prized right-wing policy goals would not be tolerated.
“Replacing Netanyahu cannot come in exchange for unilateral annexation, in exchange for no progress on religious pluralism, for advancing extreme neoliberal economic policy, and not in exchange for undermining the authority of the Supreme Court or the independence of the judicial system,” said Kariv.
He said, however, that if the only way to remove the current government is to build a wide coalition focusing just on COVID-19 without addressing other policies, “then, OK, we would have to do it for the benefit of the entire Israeli society.”
Kariv strongly emphasized, however, that the Labor Party “would not and cannot play any role under the current prime minister,” pointing to Michaeli’s refusal to join the current government while her two Knesset colleagues Peretz and Shmuli reneged on their pledge not to join a Netanyahu-led coalition.
Turning to what his personal policy and legislative priorities would be, were he to be elected to the Knesset and should Labor join a coalition, Kariv reeled off a wish list of liberal goals, including amending the Basic Law for Human Dignity and Liberty to explicitly include the principle of equality for all citizens, and to amend the controversial Nation-State Law “to reflect the fact that there are 1.5 million non-Jews living in this country.
Civil marriage and divorce are another goal Kariv said he would like to implement, as well as “legislative recognition of all streams of Judaism and equal public funding and support to non-Orthodox communities and organizations, including secular groups.”
He also insisted that the next government needs to reenter “direct dialogue with the Palestinian leadership,” which he said is feasible under the new US administration.
But the Reform rabbi was realistic, however, about the chances of major developments toward any peace agreement with the Palestinians, given the long freeze in relations and progress toward a deal.
“I’m not sure it will lead to clear results. But dialogue itself – being in a process of dialogue; knowing that even if you don’t reach the complete solution, there are many things you can achieve through dialogue – is crucial for the future relations of the two people who are sharing this land,” said Kariv.
And he was also insistent that the settler community not be demonized, even acknowledging there are “natural needs of the existing communities” in the settlements, a reference to housing and constructing needs within existing settlements.
“There is no need to use rough language against the settlers as settlers,” he said.
“There are natural needs of existing communities, and settlements which will not be removed in any agreement, and definitely young families in Ariel, need to build a house or buy an apartment.”
But he said that expanding the settlement project would be strongly opposed by Labor, describing the effort as an attempt to prevent any territorial concessions by Israel in the future.
“We will not build anymore in the settlements.... We need to understand that there are major forces in Israel working hard so that two states or separation from Palestinians will not be something that can be achieved,” said Kariv.
“We need to prevent this attempt to establish facts on the ground,” he continued, citing the moves contemplated by the outgoing government to unilaterally annex settlements and to legalize illegally established settlement outposts as examples of this effort.
And he said that the illegal outposts should be removed.
“We must be clear that Israel will not allow anything to happen that risks our future ability to reach a compromise or create a separation between the two national communities,” he said.
Kariv was also critical of “other centrist parties” that he said have not made such statements “loudly enough,” a reference to Yesh Atid and Blue and White.
THE REFORM leader also addressed an issue close to his heart and that of the progressive establishment in Israel and the US: bipartisan American political support for the State of Israel.
As has often been alleged, Kariv said that Netanyahu’s tight embrace of, and close relationship with, the former US president Donald Trump’s administration did damage to Israel’s cause in the US and with the Democratic Party of President Joe Biden.
“Netanyahu gambled in an irresponsible manner and put all his eggs in one political basket,” said Kariv, asserting that the prime minister had “ignored Democratic, progressive and liberal Jews,” and embraced Trump’s Evangelical and wildly pro-Israel base of support instead.
Despite this assertion, Jewish Democrats routinely insist the party remains strongly pro-Israel, and point to its positive voting record in Congress on matters concerning the Jewish state.
Asked whether, considering the achievements obtained during the Trump presidency, such as US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, the transfer of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, and a series of peace deals with moderate Arab states, Netanyahu’s gamble may have paid off, Kariv insisted: “No it didn’t.
“In the end, voting in Congress is just one level. But if you want intimate relations with US administration, if you want the different branches of the US government to trust the Israeli authorities, you need to build relations of trust and good faith, and Netanyahu doesn’t have the ability to do that with the current administration.”
But Kariv also criticized Netanyahu not only for changing the dynamic of US bipartisanship, but for what he said was the prime minister giving progressive US Jews the cold shoulder for the duration of the Trump administration due to his political needs.
The rabbi noted that the prime minister has not met with local non-Orthodox leaders for three years, and did not initiate any meetings with their counterparts in the US, when he traveled there.
“Netanyahu enabled the Orthodox establishment in Israel to incite, he did nothing to promote religious pluralism, he didn’t treat the non-Orthodox communities with respect, he didn’t give us the feeling that he is interested in building or cultivating relations; he gave up,” said Kariv.
He also pointed to Netanyahu’s delayed response to, and failure to address explicitly, the far-right, white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, where antisemitic chants and symbols were heard and displayed, an incident that shocked US Jewry.
“He neglected his duties, as prime minister of the State of Israel, toward world Jewry because of his political alliances here in Israel and with the Trump administration,” said Kariv.
“We are in the midst of a bad era of relations between the vast, large majority of North American Jews and the government of Israel.
“Today, with the Biden administration, Israel-US relations and relations between Israel and American Jewry need a change of leadership here in Israel.”